In the past few decades Kolkata has changed beyond recognition. New glitzy coffee shops have sprung up in shopping malls and among highrises which have replaced the shabby market places, single or double storeyed residential houses in the neighbourhoods; adda – once the favourite past time of Kolkatans hardly gets a chance in the fast paced life. Last but not the least, club football has lost its charm to the younger generation, fed on a diet of international football and mesmerised by the magic of Messi and Ronaldo.
Yet, no college reunions get over without humming Coffee house-r sei adda ta aj ar nei. It is the anthem of Kolkata, sung by generations from bygone era, the present ones and surely those to come. The golden voice of Manna Dey, the city’s balladeer evokes the same nostalgia as it had done decades ago when it was first composed and sung.
Manna Dey himself grew up in north Kolkata and true to the prevailing culture he enjoyed long adda sessions and was an avid football fan. He was a staunch supporter of Mohun Bagan Club and as an assistant of Sachin Dev Burman in Mumbai, he used to go to Cooperage ground with the noted composer who was a supporter of East Bengal to watch football matches between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan during Rovers Cup Tournament. He was a life member of Mohun Bagan Club and the president of a swimming club in Hedua.
After the tragic death of 16 football fans following a stampede at Eden Gardens on August 16, 1980, Dey sang a song, Khela football khela, composed by Suparnakanti Ghosh to pay homage to those unfortunate souls who lost their lives. Again in Dhanyi Meye, a Bengali feature film featuring Uttam Kumar, Sabitri Chatterjee, Partha Mukherjee and Jaya Bhaduri, his song Shob khelar sera bangalir tumi football became immensely popular.
It was in mid 1980s that Suparnakanti Ghosh composed Coffee house-r sei addata aj ar nei, a nostalgic song which talks about six friends who go separate ways in the course of time. Nikhilesh, the artist stays in Paris while Moidul, a reporter of a newspaper is in Dacca. Sujata is well settled in life with a rich husband and Roma Roy is in a lunatic asylum after a heart-break. D’souza, a guitar player is dead while the wannabe poet Amal is suffering from cancer. Their successes, frustrations, tragedies and disappointments are all reflected in the lilting voice of Manna Dey and leave a lump in your throat and your eyes – moist.
Few people are aware that Manna Dey had sung an advertisement jingle for the famous oil company, Burma Shell in the early 1970s. It was composed by Naushad and the lyric was by S Ananthiya. Automobile enthusiasts may find it interesting to know that the jingle was on proper maintenance of the engine. Dey himself enjoyed driving and often went on long drives with wife, Sulachona. During long drives he used to sing songs and hummed the musical part. Interestingly, while singing Tumi akash ekhon jodi hote ami bolakar moto pakha meltam – a duet with Nirmala Misra for a Bengali feature film, Ahsite Ashiona, he had put to use the same technique he had honed while driving. The song featured Bhanu Banerjee who sings while driving the car with Ruma Guhathakurta beside him.
Manna Dey had also recorded a song for the debut film of Suchitra Sen in 1952. The film never saw the light of the day. In fact Dey had sung in 49 Bengali feature films which were never released. In 1979, he sang in Jyoti babu jobab dao, a Bengali feature film which was not released due to political reasons.
He also sang five Kali kirtans in a Bengali feature film on Bamakhyapa. Dey was a trained kirtan singer who was taught by his uncle, KC Dey. As an assistant to KC Dey he had composed a song which was sung by Juthika Roy when he was only nineteen. Noted Bengali litterateur Tarashankar Bandopadhyay had wanted to meet him after listening to his rendition of Ogo tomar sesh bicharer ashay ami boshe achi, a song penned by the novelist for the film, Dak Harkara, based on his own novel.
He followed his uncle’s advice to concentrate on light classical songs instead of pure classical genre during his stint in Bombay and found popularity and fame. But it was Uttam Kumar’s decision to replace Hemanta Mukherjee as playback singer for his songs with Manna Dey which opened a new chapter in his life. In Shankhabela, Ke prothom kache asechi- his duet with Lata Mangeshkar became an all-time hit. In Alo amar alo and Har mana har, Dey sang for Uttam Kumar, striking up an immortal chemistry. His songs in Sanyasi Raja starring Uttam Kumar also became very popular. Uttam Kumar went on to win Bharat Puraskar for Chiriakhana and Anthony Firingee and Dey’s unique renditions of Ami Jamini tumi sashi he and Ami je jalsaghare-r are quite unforgettable.
Salil Chowdhury had used Manna Dey’s voice in Ekdin ratre for the song Ei duniyay bhai sabi hoi and in Anand where Zindegi kaisei hai paheli amply demonstrates Dey’s genius. Though Manna Dey found few Hindi cinema heroes who were willing to have his songs picturised on them, he had few regrets. In Bhojpuri movies he was the most popular playback singer. “I have had a wonderful life and I am indebted to the audience for their kindness,” he used to say.
But for Kolkata he remained special, a titan. Though he had long left the city where he was born in 1919 his heart never left it. It is so amply evident in the nostalgia of Coffee house-r sei adda-ta.